LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The federal government said Friday it is preparing to rewrite the rules on Colorado River water use after states failed to meet the August deadline for plans to cut use by 15% to 30%.
Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland said “expedited steps” to take decisive action are under consideration, and she has directed the Bureau of Reclamation to revise guidelines for operations at Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam.
In revising plans on managing those dams, the government is constrained by existing commitments, and Haaland said “collaborative” and “consensus-based” solutions were important. The plans currently in place were approved in 2007, and didn’t anticipate the drought continuing for 15 more years. The government said it will consider a range of options.
Alternatives include reducing the amount of water released from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to keep reservoir levels higher at the cost of downstream water flows.
It’s not solely about water. The dams must have minimum levels of water to continue producing electricity, and Friday’s announcement appears to be a commitment to continue power production at Glen Canyon Dam by keeping Lake Powell’s level as high as necessary to generate electricity. That statement is immediately followed by a pledge to keep water levels at sufficient levels in Hoover Dam to continue normal operations.
“The Interior Department continues to pursue a collaborative and consensus-based approach to addressing the drought crisis afflicting the West. At the same time, we are committed to taking prompt and decisive action necessary to protect the Colorado River System and all those who depend on it,” Haaland said. “Revising the current interim operating guidelines for Glen Canyon and Hoover dams represents one of many critical departmental efforts underway to better protect the system in light of rapidly changing conditions in the basin.”
The government is prioritizing “provisions designed to provide a greater degree of certainty to water users about timing and volumes of potential water delivery reductions for the Lower Basin states” — Nevada, Arizona and California. Additional operating flexibility to conserve and store water in the system is also part of the Interior Department’s stated goals.
The priority for continued power generation at Glen Canyon Dam could mean Lake Mead water levels will continue to drop until it threatens normal operations at Hoover Dam. It could mean lower river flow in the Grand Canyon and lower levels all the bodies of water below Hoover Dam including Lake Mohave and Lake Havasu.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said it was about stabilizing “rapidly declining reservoir storage elevations.”
The government has been dedicating more money — $4 billion as part of the Inflation Reduction Act — for water conservation efforts and water management in drought areas.
The public has until Dec. 20 to weigh in on three options that seek to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping so low they couldn’t produce power or provide the water that seven Western states, Mexico and tribes have relied on for decades.
One of the options would allow the Interior Department’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to take unilateral action, as it threatened this summer when it asked states to come up with ways to significantly reduce their use beyond what they have already volunteered and were mandated to cut.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.